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Finding Her Legs
Age Group Nationals are the latest stop on one woman’s road to recovery after her son’s death
Recovery in the sports world means ice baths, foam rollers and a couch session with dinner and a sports drink. None of those will help a person bounce back from grief.
Susan Barg has slowly and surely returned to competition after her son’s death, and she has plenty of motivation for the sprint event at the 2014 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships.
Barg began her athletic journey two decades ago with a run-walk program that got her moving 30 minutes each day. She quickly moved from her first 5k to a marathon.
“I’m not a particularly fast runner,” she says. “I could get in my groove and go. I switched to triathlons in 2005. That was a little easier on my body.”
At every race possible, her husband, Steve, brought their son. Aaron was born with a rare genetic disorder called trisomy 13. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, only 5 to 10 percent of children with the disorder live more than one year.
Trisomy 13 causes severe disabilities because an individual’s cells have extra genetic material — three copies of chromosome 13 instead of the typical two. For Aaron, that meant deafness, limited sight, and living as “an infant in a teenager’s body,” Barg says.
“My son could never speak a word, could never take a step. He could only react. But he was very social, very loving. He thrived on attention. Always smiling, always laughing.”
Barg entered the sport of triathlon as a runner, but Aaron helped her build strength on the bike. Aaron was 15 when she trained for her first multisport race, and she pulled him in a bike trailer on her rides.
“I was using my son as my motivation and inspiration,” she says. ”I decided I was going to be his legs.”
Aaron attended a residential school about an hour from home that gave him the round-the-clock care he needed while still offering him the benefits of school and weekend trips home.
Barg had just returned to her massage therapy classes in January 2009 when she got a call from Aaron’s school. He had a fever and flu-like symptoms. In addition to the physical and mental disabilities, Aaron’s respiratory system was weakened by his disease, so pneumonia was a common threat.
Aaron died a few days later at age 18.
“You’re never prepared,” Barg says. “Even though in the back of your mind you know he has a terminal diagnosis, you’re never really prepared.”
Barg tried to continue running while grieving, but her body betrayed her.
“My iron levels dropped. The doctor said sometimes that’s from trauma. I would run a half a block, and I was breathing like I was anaerobic and had run a marathon.”
She focused on completing her massage therapy training. With graduation, however, came the reality that school could no longer serve as a guiding focus. She says she wanted to find the will to train and compete, but days came and went and that will didn’t appear.
Instead, she relied on a support network of fellow athletes. If a friend scheduled a 50-mile ride, Barg would commit to ride half. If another friend planned a long run, Barg joined for a smaller slice.
“That accountability, for me, helped me get out of bed in the morning. Once you do that for a period of time, it becomes habit again. If I wouldn’t have had racing as an outlet, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it.”
She had regained a sense of self, but not independence.
A move last summer from the family’s home in Grayslake, Illinois, to Galena, Illinois, sparked that last crucial component of recovery.
Barg trained for a half Ironman in a new environment without her steady social circle available for group rides and runs.
“I had to be my own motivator,” she says, and at the race, “I was in it for myself again.”
But self does not mean selfish.
“I thought, What’s wrong with me? I want to walk.”
Barg struggled until two men ran past her near the course turnaround.
“In the nicest, calmest voice, one guy said, ‘Find your focus and start running again. You can do it.’ I visualized my son and started talking to him. ‘I can do this. Come on, Aaron, let’s go.’ I have him in my head running alongside with me. I pull that strength from him.”
She didn’t hit her goal time, but she didn’t walk either. That race served as the Illinois state qualifier for the biennial National Senior Games, and Barg will race in the 2015 triathlon event in Minnesota.
This week, she’s shooting for a spot on Team USA at the 2015 ITU World Triathlon Chicago Grand Final and World Championships.
If she makes it, that race will keep her closer to home, but never as near as she keeps Aaron.
“I think about my son every step I take. Every stroke. Every bike ride.”
A record field of more than 5,700 athletes is registered to compete in this weekend's 2014 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on the shores of Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. For more information on Sprint Nationals or to watch live coverage, visit usatriathlon.org/agnc14sprintcoverage.